London is a popular setting for literature – one often characterised by crime, confusion, filth and vice, and not just in Dickens’ time. Lucy Scholes explains.

In the first pages of Elizabeth Day’s latest novel Paradise City, a self-made millionaire sexually assaults the woman cleaning his hotel room. The housekeeper, Beatrice, is a Ugandan asylum seeker – and when she recognises her assailant’s photograph in the paper, she realises she can demand restitution from him.

Chance and happenstance are central tenants of life in any city. But they play a particularly important role in literary depictions of London. Coincidence, though, is not the only way writers set London apart from other settings. In particular, portrayals of the city have tended to focus on the darker side of urban life – including crime, vice and instability.

Often coincidence and confusion intertwine. In Peter Ackroyd’s 2013 novel Three Brothers, a student questions the “continuing use of coincidence” in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. “That is the condition of living in a city, is it not?” replies the teacher, Daniel. “The most heterogeneous elements collide. Because, you see, everything is connected to everything else.” Daniel links this to the relationship between Dickens’ characters and their environment: in most of the author’s works, he says, “the city itself becomes a form of penitentiary in which all of the characters are effectively manacled to a wall. If it is not a cell, it is a labyrinth in which few people find their way. They are lost souls.”

Urban jungle

Describing London as a labyrinth is hardly unique to Ackroyd – or to Dickens. Back in his 1821 memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas de Quincey describes searching the “labyrinths” of the city for the prostitute Ann, who befriended him when he first arrived. Because of the confusion of London’s streets, he writes, even a barrier of a few feet amounts to “a separation for eternity”.

And the London described in literature was not, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the kind of city you would want to get lost in. As Oliver Twist follows the Artful Dodger through the streets of Clerkenwell and Holborn, Dickens writes, “A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The streets were very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours […] Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth.”

Cramped spaces, confusion, dirt, bad smells, vice – these were all details commonly reported by other 18th and 19th Century authors, too. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera (1728) challenged the notion of London as a centre of refinement; Hogarth’s infamous images such as Gin Lane (1751) and the Industry and Idleness series (1747) are now synonymous with urban depravity; and in his poem The Task (1794), William Cowper described London as a “sewer”.

Social anxiety

To these unsavoury descriptions, the 19th Century’s Urban Gothic genre added anxieties about class struggle, mass unemployment and fears of an emerging, degenerate criminal underclass. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and even Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories exploited and fed these concerns, depicting a London of literal and moral darkness, all foggy, grimy streets, subterfuge and threat.

London’s infiltration by the creature Dracula points to colonial Britain’s fear of infection by the barbaric outsider. In Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four, which leads the detective to nefarious deeds that took place in the temple of Agra during the Indian Mutiny, Watson describes London as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”. The resulting image: one of the crimes of British imperialism affecting the very stronghold of the Empire’s power. The fear that the city’s darkness might infect one’s own identity also came to the fore in these books. Both Dr Jekyll and Dorian Gray have hidden, uncivilised sides that appear at night and link them with specific, insalubrious parts of town – Gray with the East End and Jekyll (or should I say Hyde) with the backstreets of Soho.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, modern London was characterised as a scene of disorientation and insecurity. “Unreal city” writes TS Eliot in his poem The Waste Land (1922). The fragmented, transitory aspects of urban life play a central role in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), a novel that begins with her protagonist joyfully walking the streets of Westminster. “In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; London; this moment of June,” Woolf writes, her stream-of-consciousness style emphasising a sense of instability.

Privacy, please

Echoes of Mrs Dalloway ring through Ian McEwan’s Saturday, published 80 years later. Like Woolf’s novel, McEwan’s is told in a single day, starting with preparations for a party. In both cases, events beyond the protagonists’ control interrupt the planned celebrations – and the boundaries between public and private are breached.

In literary London, maintaining the public-private boundary is a common concern. In the city, without the space of a roomy country house, social life flourished outside the home. Taverns, clubs and that particular 18th-Century invention, the coffee-house, became community focal points. The urban spaces we’re familiar with today – streets, squares, shops, theatres, arcades and clubs – originate in the town planning of the 18th Century.

Saturday is predominantly set in the central character’s home on Fitzroy Square (McEwan’s address at the time he wrote the novel, and, coincidentally, where Woolf lived between 1907 and 1911). “People often drift into the square to act out their drama. Clearly a street won’t do. Passions need room, the attentive spaciousness of a theatre,” he observes. “The square’s public aspect grants privacy to these intimate dramas. Couples come to talk or cry quietly on the benches. Emerging from small rooms in council flats or terraced houses, and from cramped side-streets, into a wider view of generous sky and a tall stand of plane trees on the green, of space and growth, people remember their essential needs and how they’re not being met.” In both Saturday and Mrs Dalloway, London itself becomes the spacious theatre in which domestic dramas are acted out.

Multiple personalities

One of the criticisms launched at McEwan’s novel was that it failed to capture the true diversity of the city. In the 20th Century – Saturday aside – literary London went multicultural. The first work to depict the lives of ordinary colonial immigrants was in 1956. The Lonely Londoners, a novel by Trinidadian-born Sam Selvon, tells the story of a group of West Indians from the “Windrush generation” – those who came to England following 1948’s British Nationality Act, which conferred British citizenship on all Commonwealth subjects. Although the immigrants hope to make better lives for themselves, they face racism and hardship.

More recently, Andrea Levy addressed the same experience in her prize-winning 2004 novel Small Island; Levy’s own parents sailed to England from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush in 1948. Levy’s novel is told from the viewpoints of multiple characters, a device that Zadie Smith had used four years previously in White Teeth (2000) – both authors employing multiplicity in order to capture the essence of multiculturalism.

This, of course, is the million-dollar question when it comes to London in literature: when there are so many different versions of the city, how can a writer capture its essence? And how does a writer combine the stories of individual lives with a portrait of the metropolis as a whole?

Novelists writing about London are always looking for cohesion to unite the various strands of their plot. As Daniel puts it in Three Brothers, the image he returns to again and again is that of London as “a web so taut and tightly drawn that the slightest movement of any part sent reverberations through the whole. A chance encounter might lead to terrible consequences, and a misheard word bring unintended good fortune. An impromptu answer to a sudden question might cause death.”

But just as the city contains myriad individual inhabitants, literary London is made up of many different novels – far more than are listed here. Samuel Johnson’s famous phrase “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” applies equally when it comes to the capital’s literature. There is a story about London for everyone.

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